Hands down

"It's the hardest thing you want to go through in life and you only go through it once a year,'' Hand said. "Everybody's trying to get their mind right, even though we're tired now, nobody is gonna feel sorry for us. We got to go out there and keep pushing.''

As he soaked everything in during his first practice of training camp, Michael Strahan felt invigorated, alive, happy.

"I was at practice thinking 'This is what I was made to do,' '' Strahan said.

Those were not the idyllic thoughts racing through the mind of Norman Hand, who embarked on his first Giants camp feeling much like he did in the nine previous NFL camps he attended.

"It's the hardest thing you want to go through in life and you only go through it once a year,'' Hand said. "Everybody's trying to get their mind right, even though we're tired now, nobody is gonna feel sorry for us. We got to go out there and keep pushing.''

Hand spoke during a lunch break early in this summer's camp, resting his 335 pounds, anxious to get back to his dorm room, get off his feet and take a nap. Working, running and sweating isn't much fun for anyone but for the biggest players, the linemen, it's a bit unfair. Those sub-200-pounders glide across the field and speed across the grass during those brutal conditioning sprints, while the big men, the linemen weighing in excess of 300 pounds, make the ground shake as they struggle across the width of the football field.

Hand is the biggest of the bunch. Pay no attention to the 6-3, 310 listing on the team's official roster. Hand hasn't seen 310 in years. He signed a two-year, $1.9 million contract this past off-season to provide the Giants with a bulky run-stuffer in the middle of their defensive line, a tackle expected to team with Fred Robbins, another big fellow, to occupy blockers and clear the way for the linebackers to pursue the ball and make the tackles.

Stopping an opposing running back, though, must have seemed a million miles away on the very first day of camp, as Hand huffed and puffed and finished last in every post-practice sprint, with head coach Tom Coughlin all the while barking and exhorting him to run faster.

"Him yelling don't bother me whatsoever,'' Hand said. "He told us it's gonna be the fourth quarter and nobody is gonna care if you're tired or not, you just got to go out and push through it. So I don't mind him yelling, it kind of motivates me even though I've been in the league 10 years.''

Motivation is high on the list for Hand, who was dumped by the Seahawks following the 2003 season after playing in only six games because of a torn bicep muscle. Hand, 31, started his NFL career back in 1995 with the Dolphins and also played for the Chargers and Saints before landing in Seattle. He's one of those massive run-pluggers who doesn't move particularly well but causes havoc because he simply can't be moved. That's what the Giants hope will happen when big Norman steps onto the field.

"I feel like I got something to prove,'' he said. "I feel like a reborn rookie again. It's a great time for me to show I can still play this game.''

Hand was stung when the Seahawks sent him packing and was determined not to leave the league in such unceremonious fashion.

"You don't ever want to go out the door being released,'' Hand said. "Once I leave the NFL I want to leave on my terms, I don't want to be released. You look at it, it's the same word as fired, fired from a job. Released is a nice, kinder word but in actuality you've just been fired. You don't ever want to be fired from the game you love.''

Born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, Hand grew up a fan of the Giants, with Lawrence Taylor his favorite player, and still has loads of family in the New York area. His family moved to South Carolina when he was 15 years old and that's where Hand was introduced to southern cooking. A battle of the bulge ensued.

Hand tipped the scales at well over 350 pounds when the Giants signed him and the team immediately put him in contact with Heidi Skolnik, the team nutritionist.

"I was probably the highest I've ever been,'' he said. "I needed to come back down to reality to fit my clothes again. Everything was fried food this, fried food that. My biggest thing is I can eat a lot more portions but they have to be healthy foods like baked fish and stuff like that. And a lot of salads, something I used to hate, now it's my best friend.''

A better diet and two workouts a day produced tangible results. Hand reported to the spring mini-camps at 334 pounds, two pounds under the goal Coughlin set as a reporting weight for training camp.

At the time, Hand said he was determined to arrive at camp at 315-317 pounds. Coughlin felt that was too light and an unprecedented situation might have developed.

"I might get fined for being underweight this time instead of being overweight,'' Hand said in the spring. "That will be a first. If they want me to put on weight I'm just a pork-chop sandwich away from putting back on 10 pounds.''

Hand arrived at camp at 335, explaining that he wanted to hit the mark the Giants asked him to hit.

"The biggest thing is just staying on it the whole year,'' he said. "I'm getting older and I want to see my kids grow up. I have heart problems in my family so my biggest thing is just to maintain and keep losing weight throughout the year.''

Even in the early stages of his Giants career, Hand has made an impact.

"I've hit him already, no pads, but I was going full speed and it's like hitting a wall,'' running back Tiki Barber said.

Informed that Hand has lost a considerable amount of weight, Barber laughed.

"It doesn't matter how much weight he loses,'' Barber said. "He's still a big dude.''

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